Mark Nelson’s third release as Pan American, The River Made No Sound is, aside from its artistic worth, a subtle and charismatic amalgamation of many current trends in electronic music production. In the span of the album’s 50 minutes Nelson courses through the influences of microhouse, dub, ambient music and a bevy of glitchy techniques, while keeping them all in balance, to render a record that is best taken in one sitting to better experience the elegance of its arc. But for all its technical rigor, it’s a quiet album that can pass you by if you don’t take it on it’s own low-key, slowed-down terms.
Nelson owes a debt to the originator of what we know as ambient, Brian Eno, in his atmospherically charged soundworlds. The River is like a music installation that replicates summer nights in fields and drizzly twilights alongside the white noise of crowds, traffic, and radio communications. While it’s a fairly well trodden path in music lately, Pan American sidesteps easy comparison by making these borrowed ambiences the bone and tissue of his pieces, and not just the lineaments. There is, in the words of Wire magazine editor Rob Young, no “self conscious ornamentation” here, as there is in many current releases using the same sonic materials.
The ambiences are merged with nearly subliminal beats—the click-thud of a synthetic bass drum, metronome clicks, and various glitchy percussion—and subsonic dub basslines. And Nelson makes a fine game of hiding them and playing with perspective. The disc begins in a kind of virtual field, with electronic frogs upsetting the blanket sounds of the outdoors night. Through the first half of the record this general ambience holds sway, though it is only pronounced in the opening track, “Plains”. Nelson’s patience in building a record begins to become clear as defined rhythms very slowly become more powerful in relation to the ambiences. The payoff begins at “Place Names”, where an electric piano takes center stage, signaling the first of the program’s subtle mutations. In the following “Red Line”, the electric gives way to the extraordinary decay of chords on a grand piano, which give birth to a procession of fascinating percussion techniques and signal the album’s general barometric shift from dry open spaces to lower-ceilinged rain and cloud cover.
“Raised Wall”, the sixth track, introduces some play in high frequencies heretofore neglected on the record. They are similar to the hyper ball-in-a-box sound that Autechre decisively claimed as their own by sheer endurance on the opener of last year’s Confield. Pan American’s motives are not the same, however—the “ball” is part of an overall hyper-kinetic environment that includes an unusually musical use of scraping sounds and another mist of glitches. It’s a short piece that serves as a prelude to the greater development of these materials in “St. Cloud”, which serves as the centerpiece of the second half of the record’s rainy atmospherics. Nelson manages to evoke quite a panorama of wet streets, greenish-blue atmosphere, and warm orange-lit windows with his arsenal of electronic tools. “2-Sided” is a brief exercise in electronic percussion and panning techniques that winds into “Right of Return”, where the disc ends much as it began, though it seemingly retains the experience of its development in its final soothing glitchscapes.